A Field Guide to Qigong

Qigong originated from shamanic healing rituals and totemic dances appearing around the time of the Neolithic Ice Age.
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Artwork by Sat Hon

"What Qigong style is best for me?"

I hear this common refrain from many of my students. In the panoramic view of the vast universe of Qigong, a novice faces an overwhelming selection. Qigong consists of 3,000 different styles including the ever newly minted Qigong systems. Most beginners have little understanding what Qigong is precisely, so the decision is made even more difficult. To choose the style that best suits their needs would be like picking the correct plant for an herbal remedy out of an entire forest.

Qigong originated from shamanic healing rituals and totemic dances appearing around the time of the Neolithic Ice Age. These dances and rituals invoked the animal spirits and gathered the elements in order to heal the sick and the weak. Hence, many Qigong movements still retain their names harkening to these totemic origins: "Crane Spreading Its Wings", "Tiger Return to Mountain", "Monkey Retreats", "Dragon Extends Its Claws" to name just a few. From an evolutionary and anthropological perspective, these ancient animal-like movements most likely evolved from the hunters' imitations of animals while stalking prey. I learned some of these techniques during a session with the tracker Tom Brown who acquired his tracking and stalking skills from a Native American shaman named Stalking Wolf. We huddled close to the forest floor like bloodhounds tracking the scent of our prey. My own Native American teacher, Sun Bear, enacted a movement depicting the lumbering gait of a bear during the "medicine wheel" ceremony performed to heal earth. In the long arc of human migration, the Native Americans crossed over the Siberian ice bridge to the Americas 30,000 years ago, bringing with them these ancient shamanic rituals. Having a background in dance therapy and trained in movement analysis, I see an amazing similarity between these Native American practices and the Taiji and Qigong forms.

Qigong and its function

Qigong is practiced for health, healing and Taoist alchemical cultivation. These threefold functions of Qigong define the three main categories of Qigong schools and their focus. For example, in our Dantao School, we offer Alchemical Qigong and Medical Qigong. Alchemical Qigong falls under the Taoist alchemy of cultivating the inner flow of energy and allowing one's full potential to blossom. This could be equated with the training of an Olympic athlete who wishes to reach full human potential without the use of performance enhancing drugs. On the other hand, Medical Qigong practice works to heal and help in the recovery from chronic sickness or in battling cancer. Medical Qigong is an integral part of the complementary healing programs in most major oncology wards in China as well as Taiwan. During my residency in China, I would lead a line of cancer patients in the practice of the slow, laborious walk of Medical Qigong.

All Qigong styles are good, but which particular style is good for you?

This critical question can only be answered by the student's own self-assessment. What is your health condition? What are your aspirations? Some of my Medical Qigong students are healthcare professionals: acupuncturists, physical therapists, psychiatrists and medical doctors. Others have serious chronic illnesses or are in recovery from cancer. A few just love the gentle quality of the Medical Qigong movements. In contrast, Alchemical Qigong classes are composed of dancers, personal trainers, martial artists, Buddhists, and Taoists. Most are in good health and want to improve their physical and psychological well-being or develop spiritual insight through the practice of alchemical cultivation. Alchemical Qigong is a vigorous regiment of expansive motion and powerful breathing patterns such as "the Breath of Fire" or "the Lion's Roar".

How does Qigong differ from Taiji?

If we look at the evolution of the Qigong family tree, Taiji is a grandchild of Qigong. It is a branch that sprouted and developed into a martial art form while continuing to retain the healing effects of Qigong. In recent scientific studies, Taiji has been shown to have significant health benefits. It improves balance in senior citizens as well as helping to resolve the knots of clinical depression in mental patients. However, here lies the dividing line: a great Taiji master can defend himself against a mugger, but a Qigong master will be utterly helpless.

As a field guide, I would list some of the Qigong systems that I have personally practiced:

  • Medical Qigong: (see above).
  • Alchemical Qigong: (see above).
  • Immune Qigong: A system using gentle mudras (hand gestures) and silken movements to activate and balance one's endocrine and immune systems.
  • Taiyin Qigong: Supreme Feminine Qigong arises from the female Taoist master, Sun Bei-er (1400 AD). She wrote the fundamental guide for women to help in their cultivation of meditation. These practices aim to open the inner channels, and ultimately, to help women attain the grand achievement of immortality. This is a rare, esoteric Qigong system guarded over the years by the Taoist sisterhood. During the Cultural Revolution, some of the teachers decided to divulge its secret to a few students in order to preserve its transmission.
  • Shaolin Yijin Zhing: The Shaolin Temple's Inner Sanctum Qigong is based on the semi-yogic practice of the foreign Buddhist monk Boddhidharma who transmitted this physical cultivation to the Chinese monks. This martial Qigong works on the physiology, biological systems, and connective tissues: ligaments, sinews and muscles. In modern China, the central government has sanctioned an abbreviated version of Shaolin Qigong.
  • Hua Shan 36 Spherical Qigong: Flower Mountain 36 Circular Qigong is attributed to one of the ancient Taoists, Chan Tuan whose chief Qigong practice was Taoist Dream Work. Unfortunately, some historians have mislabeled it Sleeping Qigong. Hua Shan Qigong has a formless quality; it uses circular movements on three specific planes. From my perspective, I feel this Qigong shares many of the qualities of the Mevlevi Sufi's whirling practices. In both these practices, the spherical spinning creates a funnel to draw in the cosmic energy and cultivate a sense of great stillness as in the center of a spinning wheel.
  • Soaring Crane Qigong: A newly minted form by the late Qigong master, Zhou Jin Xing who based its movement on the totemic Crane dance. It also emphasizes the cultivation of spontaneous movements that occur during Qigong practice. These spontaneous movements originate from the body's own intuitive healing power which generates semi-autonomic movement to heal one's own illness. Widely popular in the 1980s, it has been restricted by the Chinese government in its recent crackdown on Qigong.
  • Pan Gu Qigong: A recent addition based on the ancient silk scroll of Qigong movements discovered at the grave of an imperial minister who died around 500 BC. This Qigong emphasizes the circulation of the palms in order to create a bio-energetic field. Its practitioners have the ability to project powerful Qi/energy emanations -- in other words, they generate a tremendous amount of healing Qi to transfer into patients.
  • Zhineng Qigong: A recently developed Qigong from Master Pan who opened one of the few Qigong hospitals in China. During its peak, 3,000 patients occupied the hospital/retreat center on the outskirts of Beijing. One of its chief Qigong movements is the Tree Squatting exercise that resembles someone squatting down slowly facing a tree. Zhineng Qigong is a comprehensive system that encompasses the vast wisdom tradition of Taoist alchemy. They pioneered some of the early scientific studies in Qi emission to promote the growth of plants, shrink tumors and help in the recovery of paralysis caused by stroke.
  • Gou Lin New Qigong: Master Gou Lin's Qigong spearheaded the development of Qigong within the therapeutic paradigm. She shifted Qigong from its martial and alchemical landscape into hospital and oncology wards. Gou Lin discovered and created this Qigong in order to heal her own late-stage, metastatic cancer. Her Qigong has been incorporated into Medical Qigong.
  • Er Mei 12 Posture Qigong: This originates from an ancient classical Qigong sect from the Er Mei Mountain Taoist Temple. In the 1930s, a monk named White Clouds transmitted this form to a young man, Chou, who was suffering from an acute fainting sickness. Later on, Chou propagated this form at one of the Qigong retreat centers and wrote a definitive book on its theory and cultivation. Er Mei Qigong has qualities similar to yoga utilizing stretches, bending, and static postures. However, hidden in its Qigong movements are also martial applications. Hence, Er Mei Qigong cultivates both health and martial aspects.
  • Yi Quan: A Qigong evolved from the martial art system: Xi Yin Quan. Its chief practice is akin to standing meditation. One maintains a standing posture of hugging an imaginary tree, hence their Tree Hugging pose. I love its stillness with the dynamic flow of inner energy zooming within the psychic channels. The founder Wang Xing Zhi wrote that when the physical body is still, the inner energetic body is awakened.
  • Wild Goose Qigong: A classical, comprehensive Qigong was conceived in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Kunlun Mountain Taoist Sanctuary has a bronze case of 12 wild geese in various totemic poses. Its lineage holder is the late granddame of Qigong, the 120 year-old Madame Yang Mei Juan. At the age of 102, she visited the United States and amazed audiences with her agile imitation of a wild goose flapping its wings. Its movement retains the silk route's influence of Persian dance and Indic/Greco curves.

In summary, the dawn of Qigong in the West has arrived. Qigong can be likened to an ancient, giant tree continually sprouting and branching to create new forms which in turn help to feed the development of its massive trunk. Facing the challenge of choosing the right style out of these many possibilities, the beginner should first observe a class before enrolling in a school. Furthermore, it is crucial that he/she speak not only with the teacher, but also with the students. After all, the students are a reflection of the teacher.

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